When Ellis Genge turned up at Leicester five years ago for his loan period from Bristol, the then director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, told the tyro prop he would play for England one day.
“I thought he was joking,” says Genge from this week’s England training camp in Jersey. “But he’s been a big pillar in my career and if it wasn’t for Cockers I wouldn’t be sitting here now.” Not only is the 26-year-old loosehead now Leicester’s captain, the Tigers sit proudly atop England’s Premiership as they prepare for Saturday’s east Midlands derby at Northampton and Genge is the undisputed first choice for the England No 1 shirt as they prepare for their autumn Tests against Tonga, Australia and South Africa.
Moreover, Cockerill has been recruited by Eddie Jones to the Australian’s coaching team as a forwards coach alongside the scrummaging coach Matt Proudfoot. The unspoken message from the Channel Islands, where the England forwards have been bonding by pushing an armoured vehicle along the beach at Le Braye and swimming out to sea 700 metres to haul back a giant paddleboard, is an unsubtle one: these Tests are going to be physical and we are ready.
“I’m not a very good swimmer but I made it back. We really enjoyed the exercises and there’s a big buzz around the camp. The boys are on fire,” says Genge, who will not admit it but has been a key reason for Leicester’s rise to the top this autumn. Genge will not even admit to being the first-choice loosehead, recognising that Mako Vunipola, his rival until now, has been dropped by Jones. “Am I the first choice? I have no idea. I don’t pick the team. Mako is a world-class player and George Ford has been playing brilliantly at fly-half for us but nothing is certain. Joe Marler is also in the squad. He’s also been in outstanding form and is some character.
“I have been massively impressed with the young players. They’ve brought a different energy about the place. Freddie Steward is the bees knees and Adam Radwan a weird little character who I’ve managed to keep close to. He’s a little bit different, a bit like Jonny May. I’d never met someone like Tommy Freeman. For me, it was good to sit down with him and find out what makes him tick and to know that out there on the pitch he would go that extra mile for you.”
Jones once described Genge and Kyle Sinckler as “aggressive, angry men”. They had tough, hardscrabble upbringings on council estates in Bristol and south London respectively and rugby has channelled that aggression. Both were also left out of Warren Gatland’s initial Lions squad this year and the props have a point to prove.
“Cockers has adapted to his new environment. He had a different role as director of rugby at Leicester where he would bawl you out if you were wearing the wrong kit or whatever. In the England environment things are of a higher standard and he can concentrate on his coaching role. At some stage we will see his hard-nosed edge come out.”
When Tonga come to Twickenham next week two of Genge’s clubmates, the young full-back Steward and the hooker Nic Dolly, as well as Newcastle’s Radwan on the right wing, are expected to make an impact. The Sydney-born Dolly’s rise to prominence has surprised even him but he may start the Tonga game, leaving the more experienced Jamie George to pack down for the bigger Tests to come. “He’s another weird fellow but you have to be a little bit tapped to do the job we do and put your bodies through all this,” says Genge.
England’s players have found their way back to shore this week and they know they can survive November’s choppy waters.